The Kaiser did not take his final bow at the most recent Chanel show, with “fatigue” cited as the reason — which could still be true, but Karl Lagerfeld’s death today at approximately 85 (he was well-known to shave off a few here and there, and no one is entirely sure when that started or if it stopped) suggests that maybe this had been brewing behind the scenes for a while. He had been the steward at Fendi for more than 50 years, and stepped in to rejuvenate Chanel in 1983; his seasonal work has been deeply prolific, often longer than we can realistically slideshow here, and he’s done everything from throwing a show on the Great Wall of China (for Fendi), and in Havana and at Versailles; to creating an indoor beach; to making a March venue look like models were strolling through the park on a leafy autumn day, or shipping an iceberg from Scandinavia (this link has a whole slew of other visuals from Chanel’s most major shows).
Whether you loved his Chanel or not, it developed its own iconic, identifiable look — not perhaps as indelible as his own, but to the point where you could usually guess correctly that this was an outfit’s provenance. Karl made fashion ambassadors out of Kristen Stewart — who most recently wore only Chanel when she was on the Cannes jury — and Keira Knightley, he wooed Penelope Cruz to the brand, and he had become a go-to for Margot Robbie at major events as well.
He seems to have been a complex person. I remember interviewing Alexa Chung once at Fashion Week, and she talked about how he was more thrilling than intimidating to talk to, with a wide-ranging expertise and a really sharp wit. That’s evident in many of his zippy turns of phrase, though his tongue could be quick to turn acidic, and in his longer meanderings. From NPR:
“Life is not a beauty contest, some [ugly people] are great,” Lagerfeld once said. “What I hate is nasty, ugly people… the worst is ugly, short men. Women can be short, but for men it is impossible. It is something that they will not forgive in life… they are mean and they want to kill you.”
The New York Times has a lengthy and good obituary with some archival photos. It’s well worth a read for the Lagerfeld quotes in there alone, and then this about his impact on fashion:
His contribution to fashion was not in creating a new silhouette […] Rather, he created a new kind of designer: the shape-shifter. That is to say, the creative force who lands at the top of a heritage brand and reinvents it by identifying its sartorial semiology and then wresting it into the present with a healthy dose of disrespect and a dollop of pop culture. Not that he put it that way exactly. What he said was: “Chanel is an institution, and you have to treat an institution like a whore — and then you get something out of her.”
This approach has become almost quotidian in the industry, but before Mr. Lagerfeld was hired at Chanel, when the brand was fading into staid irrelevance kept aloft on a raft of perfume and cosmetics, it was a new and startling idea.That he dared act on it, and then kept doing so with varying degrees of success for decades, transformed not only the fortunes of Chanel (now said to have revenues of over $4 billion a year) but also his own profile.
And it cleared a new path for designers who came after, from Tom Ford (who likewise transformed Gucci) to John Galliano (Dior), Riccardo Tisci (Givenchy, Burberry) and Tomas Maier (Bottega Veneta).
Those who wanted to dismiss Mr. Lagerfeld referred to him as a “styliste”: a designer who creates his looks by repurposing what already exists, as opposed to inventing anything new. But he rejected the idea of fashion-as-art, and the designer-as-tortured genius. His goal was more opportunistic.
“I would like to be a one-man multinational fashion phenomenon,” he once said.
Indeed, his output as a designer was rivaled only by his outpourings as a master of the telling aphorism — so much so that his quotations were collected in a book, “The World According to Karl,” in 2013.
Some choice excerpts: “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat,” and “I’m very much down to earth. Just not this earth.”
Here is Vogue’s take, too.
We covered him less over the years, but earlier in GFY history I would imagine occasional dialogues between him and the celebrities with whom he’d pose.
This shot with Posh Spice inspired the first parody (“Thoughts are for the dull, darling; BE AMAZING”); there were later appearances by Lindsay Lohan, Kirsten Dunst, Kate Bosworth, Claudia Schiffer, Blake Lively, and SWINTON and Salma. Or… here’s the archive; it’s not too long. Mr. Lagerfeld surely would have rolled his eyes, but however silly these are, he was fun to parody.
Beyond that, I am not fluent in Karl, so I’ve been reading up and learning today in his wake. But the gift Jessica once gave me — a pillowcase with him silk-screened onto it — still hangs over my desk while I work. I was once Karl for Halloween, and I have a little felt version of him (yes, called Karl Lagerfelt) that sits over one of my pens and judges me daily. He stepped in at an iconic brand and became an icon himself, and fashion will miss the force of his aura.